Friday, April 11, 2008

T.H. White

Born in Bombay, India May 29, 1906
Died at sea, January 17, 1964 and buried in Piraeus, Greece

T.H. White, a troubled but productive writer, had a world of experiences upon which to draw and used them to create two enduring masterpieces (The Once and Future King as well as Mistress Masham's Repose) that still enchant children and adults half a century later. Every couple of generations it seems, someone comes along to reinvigorate and reinterpret our collective ancient stories in such a way that they gain new currency and vitality. The Grimm brothers in the early eighteen hundreds, Hans Christian Andersen in the late eighteen hundreds, Pierre and Inga D'Aulaire in the nineteen thirties with the Nordic and Greek Myths, Robert Fagles with the Greek masterpieces, are all landmark collectors and re-interpreters that keep us connected with our accumulated wisdom and learning of the past five thousand years of civilization. T.H. White entered into this select group with his stories based on Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Authur, the Arthurian legends of Britain.

His was a complex and very British life. Born in India at the height of the Raj, White was the son of a police superintendent. His father was apparently an alcoholic, his mother somewhat emotionally distant and unpredictable, and the marriage of his parents catastrophically unstable. Any child of the Raj was already challenged with the prospect of prolonged isolation from parents in India while attending boarding school in England and lodging with distant family or strangers during the holidays. For White, this prospect might have actually been something of a relief. As he related in the biography T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, "There was a great deal of shooting in the air in those days. I am told that my father and mother were to be found wrestling with a pistol, one on either side of my cot, each claiming that he or she was going to shoot the other, and himself or herself, but in any case, beginning with me. . . . It was not a safe kind of childhood."

At six years of age, T.H. White was sent to live with his maternal grandparents. At fourteen, his parents finally divorced and the same year he began attending Cheltenham College in England. One of the coterie of Public Schools, Cheltenham had a tradition of preparing students for a career in the Army. Between the instability of his childhood and his instinctive revulsion to the discipline and martial ethos of Cheltenham, White sought to carve out a path of achievement for himself through self-reliance, personal excellence and the conquering of personal fears. Describing how this drive for achievement manifested itself, he later said:
"I had to learn to paint even, and not only to paint - oils, art and all that sort of thing - but to build and mix concrete and to be a carpenter and to saw and screw and put in a nail without bending it. Not only did I have to be physically good at things, I had to excel with my head as well as with my body and hands. I had to get a first-class honours with distinction at the University. I had to be a scholar. I had to learn medieval Latin shorthand so as to translate bestiaries."
This personal philosophy of achievement shows up much later in the words of Merlin in The Once and Future King.
"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."
From Cheltenham, White went up to Queen's College, Cambridge from whence he graduated in 1928, and indeed, with a first-class degree with honors in English. Upon graduating, White obtained a position as the head of the English Department at the recently established, Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. He taught here for the next several years.

In 1929, he published his first book, Loved Helen and Other Poems. While he seems to have been reasonably happy teaching at Stowe, White was looking for a way to pursue writing full-time. Through 1935, he published ten volumes of poems and novels for adults. In 1936 he published England Have My Bones (ironically titled given the circumstances of his future demise), a collection of essays and stories recounting his experiences fishing, hunting, and flying. This book somewhat unexpectedly became a national best-seller and finally created the income that would allow him to throw over teaching and take up writing full-time.

He settled in the vicinity of Stowe in a game keeper's cottage. Despite having written his thesis at Cambridge on Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, White had never actually read the book. As he relates in a letter to a friend cited in Warner's biography,

"Do you remember I once wrote a thesis on the Morte d'Arthur? Naturally I did not read Malory when writing the thesis on him, but one night last autumn I got desperate among my books and picked him up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find (a) that the thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle, and an end implicit in the beginning, and (b) that the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast. Anyway, I somehow started writing a book. It is not a satire. Indeed, I am afraid it is rather warm-hearted - mainly about birds and beasts. It seems impossible to determine whether it is for grown-ups or children. It is more or less a kind of wish-fulfillment of the things I should like to have happened to me when I was a boy."

In 1938 this was published as, The Sword in the Stone, the first in the King Arthur tetralogy. Because it is a convoluted tale, it is best to grab the nettle and describe the surprisingly loopy publishing sequence of what has been described as a trilogy and a tetralogy. The Sword in the Stone was published as a stand-alone book in 1938 and was followed in 1939 by The Witch in the Wood (which was later republished under a different title, The Queen of Air and Darkness) and finally, in 1940 by The Ill Made Knight.

White had planned to write two further books in this series. The Candle in the Wind was to be the final story based on Malory's original work and then White intended a fifth and final volume to bring his own conclusion to the Arthurian sequence. The Candle in the Wind was completed in the early forties but by then, of course, Britain was fighting for her life as World War II engulfed the world. White had extensive discussions with his publishers but due to the war and paper shortages, the whole project was set aside and The Candle in the Wind remained unpublished.

In the 1950's, White returned to his original trilogy of books, lightly rewrote them and then integrated them with the fourth, final and still unpublished book deriving from Morte d'Arthur, Candle in the Wind and published the resulting single book as The Once and Future King in 1958. The fifth book, of his own devising, was discovered by the University of Texas among his papers and was released in 1977 as The Book of Merlyn.

The Arthurian legends have always been popular but T.H. White, with The Once and Future King gave them a whole new life and impetus. The Once and Future King was the book on which Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in turn wrote the Broadway musical Camelot which then spawned the movie of the same name with Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave; all adding fuel to the revivifying Arthurian fire.

And what was it that White did that was so effective? It is a little hard to say exactly what one thing there was that made the difference. The Sword in the Stone is essentially a prequel to Malory's Morte d'Arthur telling the adventures of Arthur as a young boy and apprentice, learning to become a king and a warrior from Merlin. As part of his training, Merlin transforms him into a hawk, a badger, a fish, etc.; his experiences as each creature teaching him a different perspective on the world, and a greater appreciation of the different experiences of life. The Sword in the Stone is written in a relatively light-hearted and humorous fashion and serves as a hook into a much broader, deeper, and as it progresses, darker story. It serves in relation to the later books much as Tolkien's Hobbit does with The Lord of the Rings.

One of the things that White does quite well is to stay close to the original stories as told by Mallory while at the same time making them new. He introduces a couple of new characters that give some greater scope for action in the stories but they are not obtrusive nor do they hijack the tales away from their original intent. White also uses an unusual device to link a present day child to the medieval era. The device White uses is anachronism and he introduces this by having Merlin being born in modern times and growing old backwards into time. Merlin therefore already knows about the future and repeatedly alludes anachronistically to current day circumstances impossible to know in the Middle Ages. White is not heavy handed with this technique but it certainly connects with a young adult reader.

Part of the attraction is also that the series grows with the child. A precocious reader can certainly enjoy it as young as ten or twelve but The Sword in the Stone can also be a good book to read to a child that loves words, humor, action and an element of fantasy. However, as the child grows, so too do the elements of seriousness and importance in the books - they can stay engaged. The stories are still exciting and White, based in part on his practical living-on-the-land skills, does a marvelous job of evoking an ancient time and style of living much closer to the land and the boundary of wildness. As they progress, the stories powerfully lay out moral and philosophical issues for a child (or adult) to mull over, not necessarily ever thinking of them in those dry terms.

The other aspect that feeds their continuing relevance is that the themes with which White deals -war, loyalty, honor, betrayal - all remain of primal appeal, particularly to a young adults testing their knowledge and their beliefs. These are great books for a teenager to be reading. But as with any great book, these components of the story are only present on reflection; they don't stand as crude messages in the story itself which roars along at its own exciting pace. Given that the core issue with which Arthur and, in turn, White is wrestling is the question of the role of war, force and coercion, these books are immensely topical.

So, what makes it so good? Great writing and description, strong plot, subtle conceptual material attuned to a young person's thoughts, plenty of action but also with plenty of behavioral and emotional tension. There is something for everyone to enjoy and something for everyone to learn.

In addition to The Once and Future King, White also wrote another, very imaginative and clever, book, Mistress Masham's Repose. Not as weighty as the Arthurian stories end up being, it is none-the-less a very engaging tale. The premise is that a number of Lilliputians from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels actually returned to England with Lemuel Gulliver and escaped into the grounds of an ancestral estate, establishing an isolated colony away from the eyes and ears of humans. They are there discovered by Maria, a ten year-old orphan, come to live on the estate with a malevolent governess and a cruel guardian who is also the local vicar.

White wrote a couple of dozen books for children and adults during his life with another half-dozen published posthumously. The late fifties and early sixties were marked by increasing prosperity from both his books and then the Camelot musical and, later, the film. With the increasing popularity of his books in the USA and then his involvement with the production of the Camelot, White came to America in 1963-64 for a lecture tour. Having completed the lecture circuit and writing a book (published posthumously as America At Last: The American Journal of T.H. White) White was returning to England, via a lengthy tour of the Mediterranean.

He was en route from Lebanon to Greece when he was discovered the morning of January 17, 1964, dead in his cabin, Room 109, of heart disease. He is buried in Peraeus, Greece under the epitaph "Author who, from a troubled heart, delighted others, loving and praising this life."

Young Adult

Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White and illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg Highly Recommended

The Book of Merlyn by T. H. White Suggested

The Goshawk by T. H. White Suggested

The Once and Future King by T. H. White Highly Recommended

The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White and illustrated by Dennis Nolan Highly Recommended

T.H. White Bibliography

Loved Helen and Other Poems by T.H. White 1929
The Green Bay Tree; or The Wicked Man Touches Wood by T.H. White 1929
Dead Mr. Nixon by T.H. White and Ronald McNair Scott 1931
They Winter Abroad: A Novel by T.H. White 1932
First Lesson: A Novel by T.H. White 1932
Darkness at Pemberley by T.H. White 1932
Farewell Victoria by T.H. White 1933
Earth Stopped; or Mr. Marx's Sporting Tour by T.H. White 1934
Gone to Ground: A Novel by T.H. White 1935
Song through Space and Other Poems by T.H. White 1935
England Have My Bones by T.H. White 1936
Burke's Steerage; or The Amateur Gentleman's Introduction to Noble Sports and Pastimes by T.H. White 1938
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White 1938
The Witch in the Wood by T.H. White 1939
The Ill-Made Knight by T.H. White 1940
Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White and illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg 1946
The Elephant and the Kangaroo by T.H. White 1947
The Age of Scandal: An Excursion through a Minor Period by T.H. White 1950
The Goshawk by T.H. White 1951
The Scandalmonger by T.H. White 1952
The Book of Beasts: A Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the 12th Century by T.H. White 1954
The Master: An Adventure Story by T.H. White 1957
The Once and Future King by T.H. White 1958
The Godstone and the Blackymor by T.H. White and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1959
America at Last: The American Journal of T. H. White by T.H. White 1965
The White/Garnett Letters by T.H. White 1968
The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King by T.H. White 1977
A Joy Proposed by T.H. White 1980
The Maharajah and Other Stories by T.H. White 1981
Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence between T. H. White and L. J. Potts by T.H. White 1982

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